Review: “The Skin Palace” By Jack O’ Connell (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read a Jack O’Connell novel. After really enjoying O’Connell’s “Word Made Flesh” and “Box Nine” about six months earlier, I ended up buying all five of his “Quinsigamond” novels. Then… I got distracted by other books.

Still, after the previous novel I read really amazed me, I needed to read another high-quality book. And, after searching through my book piles, I found the second-hand copy of O’Connell’s 1996 novel “The Skin Palace” that I’d planned to read several months ago.

Interestingly, whilst this novel takes place in the same fictional city as O’Connell’s other “Quinsigamond” novels and even contains a few references to events and locations from “Word Made Flesh” (eg: Maisel, The July Sweep etc..), it is a self-contained novel that can be read on it’s own or, as I did, out of the correct “order” of the series.

So, let’s take a look at “The Skin Palace”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “The Skin Palace” that I read.

The novel begins with a mysterious description of a teenage boy watching a silent film in a cinema. During the film, a bereaved woman enters the theatre and sits in front of the boy. She breaks into tears during the film. The boy mistakenly believes that she is profoundly affected by what she is seeing on the screen.

Three years later, a couple called Sylvia and Perry are having a romantic evening at a drive-in theatre when Perry, a lawyer, mentions that he’s got a raise and wants to buy Sylvia something. Sylvia has seen an advert for a used high-end camera and, being an amateur photographer, she suggests it. Although Perry isn’t keen on the idea, he agrees. The next day, Sylvia visits a dilapidated camera shop in one of the more run-down parts of town and sets into motion a bizarre chain of events.

Meanwhile, local mob boss Hermann Kinsky wants his eighteen-year old son Jakob to join the family business. Although Jakob’s sociopathic cousin Felix has fit into mob life really well and seems to be the logical choice of successor, Hermann wants his nerdy film-obsessed son to be his protege…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it is a little slow to start and it probably isn’t for everyone, it is amazing. It is this wonderfully surreal, vivid, compelling, atmospheric and unique “film noir”-themed drama novel that somehow manages to be both extremely high-brow and yet rebelliously “edgy” at the same time. This is the kind of novel that makes you think “THIS has artistic merit!“.

Seriously, this book does so much clever stuff. Whether it is the brilliant irony of a story about cinema and photography being told purely through text, or the novel’s many points about the power of images, or the beautiful narration, or the elaborately bizarre locations that you’ll really want to visit, or the fact that you’ll feel like you’ve gained 20 IQ points (and doubled your thinking speed) after a reading session, or the ultra-deep characterisation or even some of the novel’s brilliantly cynical political satire, this surreal hardboiled drama novel is a lot more “high-brow” than you might think 🙂

One of the major themes of this book is the power of images, and this is explored in all sorts of ways. Whether it is a character who was pretty much raised in a cinema, scenes that show how the audience determines the meaning of an image, scenes involving mysterious photographs, a blue movie director with high artistic ambitions, film script-like narrative segments, a bizarre version of “The Wizard Of Oz”, an almost religious focus on traditional film-based cameras etc… This is the kind of book that really makes you think about the hundreds of images we all see every day.

This book is also just as atmospheric as you’d expect a Jack O’Connell novel to be too 🙂 Like in the other O’Connell novels I’ve read, this story takes place in a vaguely New York/New England-style city called Quinsigamond. It’s this slightly run-down, modern film noir city filled with garish neon and quirky old buildings. It really feels like a real place 🙂 Seriously, I’d almost forgotten how wonderful it is to visit Quinsigamond 🙂

Plus, as befitting settings like this, the novel is also something of a crime/mystery thriller too. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced story, this story has enough suspense, mystery, elaborate criminal schemes, plot twists, cleverly connected storylines etc.. to compare fairly well to traditional hardboiled crime fiction. Even so, the crime-based parts of the story are more of a sub-plot (with the bulk of the novel being about Sylvia’s bizarre detective-like quest to find the original owner of the second-hand camera she found, rather than Jakob’s experience of life in the mob).

The novel also contains some wonderfully cynical political satire too. One sub-plot revolves around two fanatical (and thoroughly hypocritical) political campaign groups trying to shut down an adult theatre. Both groups are, of course, on completely opposite ends of the political spectrum to each other. The fights between these two fanatical political groups and, ultimately, their chilling similarities, is a brilliantly daring and cynical piece of political satire that feels oddly timeless and yet very much of the 1990s at the same time.

In terms of the characters, this novel absolutely excels 🙂 Not only do many of the characters get an astonishing amount of characterisation, but they’re all both realistic enough to be relatable, yet stylised enough to appear dream-like or larger than life. Seriously, the characters are one of the major reasons why this is such a compelling story. One of the best examples of this is how Sylvia and Jakob’s character arcs parallel each other, yet feel different and distinctive enough to really add variety to the story.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is exquisite. Although the novel’s use of the present tense might take a little bit of getting used to, it really helps the story’s many descriptions flow in a way that feels hyper-vivid. Seriously, some descriptive parts of this novel are almost poetic. Best of all, these elaborate descriptions are paired with a more “matter of fact” hardboiled style that helps to keep the story feeling solid. In essence, this novel reads a little bit like a mixture of Dashiell Hammett and William Burroughs or something like that.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit on the longer side of things. At 414 pages in length and with a lot of focus on descriptions and characterisation, don’t expect a quick read. Yet, even though this book is a bit slow-paced, it won’t really matter because the story is so vivid and compelling.

As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. Whilst the focus on non-digital cameras and cinemas dates the novel a bit, it also lends it a surprisingly timeless “film noir”-like quality. Likewise, whilst this novel does have a small number of rather dated “politically incorrect” moments (the worst probably being a scene that seems to conflate drag queens and transgender people. And don’t get me started on the violence and pronouns in this scene…), most other parts of the novel have aged fairly well and still remain very compelling to this day.

All in all, this is an absolutely excellent novel. Yes, a few parts haven’t aged well and it isn’t for everyone but, if you want an intelligent hardboiled novel with a brilliant atmosphere, a touch of surrealism, fascinating characters, beautiful narration and a story that will actually make you think, then you need to read this novel 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

Review: “Box Nine” By Jack O’ Connell (Novel)

Well, after reading Jack O’Connell’s excellent “Word Made Flesh” about three weeks ago, I was eager to read more of his novels. And, I thought that I’d start with a second-hand copy of O’Connell’s 1992 novel “Box Nine”. And what a novel it is 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Box Nine”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “Box Nine” that I read.

The story takes place in the fictional New England city of Quinsigamond. A new drug, lingo, has hit the streets. It lights up the language centres of the brain like a Christmas tree before eventually sending the user into a violent homicidal rage.

Lenore is a badass, heavy metal-obsessed speed freak whose main spiritual belief is in the power of her .357 magnum. She’s also a narcotics cop who, much to her disdain, has been paired with a mild-mannered scientist for the investigation into lingo…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is wow! It is a masterpiece. This is an information-dense, intelligent, imaginative noir detective novel that is so well-written that you’ll be reading it as quickly as an action-thriller novel. It is a book that has the human depth of Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“, as much atmosphere as a cyberpunk novel, the uncensored weirdness of old beat literature (or maybe something a little bit like Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”) and more cool-ness than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, this novel is awesome 🙂

This is a book that really has to be experienced first-hand to truly be appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice. And, like with “Word Made Flesh”, it probably isn’t for everyone either. But, I’ll try to describe it to the best of my abilities.

I should probably start by talking about the detective/thriller elements of this story. Like any good noir novel (and, yes, “The Maltese Falcon” is referenced in this book), this novel focuses on things like moral ambiguity, atmosphere, complex plotting and an intricate web of criminal intrigue. Although the investigation sometimes seems more like a background detail (when compared to all of the compelling characterisation, drama etc..) it is certainly well-written and well-plotted. Like a thriller novel, there are also quite a few story threads that are expertly brought together by the end of the story.

One interesting element of the detective parts of the story is how the story approaches the topic of policing and drugs. Not only is the novel’s main detective (Lenore) a morally-ambiguous gun nut who takes a lot of amphetamines, but the story also includes a brilliant satire of the war on drugs too. Whilst the story doesn’t shy away from the damage drugs can cause, the novel’s police and drug dealers are shown to exist in a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

But, although this is a detective story, the main thing that keeps this novel page-turningly compelling is the writing and the characterisation. Like a good cyberpunk or noir novel, this story is written in both a grippingly fast-paced way and an information-dense way. This links in absolutely perfectly with the novel’s themes of language, paranoia and stimulants. This story dazzles you with atmospheric descriptions, deep insights and complex drama at a hundred miles an hour and it is a joy to behold 🙂

The novel’s third-person narration is written in an intelligently informal way and this is one of those stories that has a wonderfully distinctive narrative voice that you’ll want to read more of. The narration flickers between “matter of fact”/thriller-style descriptions and more literary narration so quickly that you’ll read it as fast as the former and get the intellectual satisfaction of the latter. Seriously, this is the kind of novel that tells a high-brow story with the gripping intensity of a more low-brow story 🙂

The novel also includes some interesting experimental touches too. These take the form of conversation transcripts, talk radio excerpts and dictaphone messages from one of the other characters (which are related in breathless, paragraph-less “stream of consciousness” rambles). These segments really help to add some intensity and background depth to the story, although the dictaphone segments can – ironically- slow the story down a little.

The other thing that keeps this novel so brilliantly compelling are the characters 🙂 This novel devotes a lot of time to characterisation and, yet, all of this characterisation was so fascinating that it never really seemed like a distraction from the gripping, atmospheric story.

Lenore is an absolutely fascinating protagonist (plus, she listens to Iron Maiden too 🙂 ) who could have easily become a two-dimensional “Tank Girl“- like cartoon character in the hands of a lesser writer. But, here, she’s presented as a complex, flawed and intriguing character who is more interesting and original than the characters in many other novels.

The other characters are also really fascinating too. Whether it is Lenore’s shy, methodical and introverted twin brother Ike, some of the other detectives, some of the local gangsters, the owners of Lenore’s favourite restaurant, the boss of the local post office or the scientist that Lenore has to team up with, I cannot praise the characters enough 🙂 Not only are they interesting and well-written, but a lot of the novel’s characterisation also comes from character interactions and the contrast between different characters too.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. In addition to the story’s main theme of language and communication, the novel also tackles topics like loneliness, memory, drugs, books, politics, violence etc.. too. Seriously, this is one of those books that probably needs to be read multiple times in order to be fully appreciated.

In terms of length, this novel is really good too. Although this novel is 352 pages long, it manages to cram 450+ pages of storytelling into this space. In other words, this novel never really feels like it is too long and the story doesn’t suffer from the bloatedness that more modern novels can sometimes suffer from.

As for how this twenty-seven year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Yes, it is clearly the product of a slightly more “edgy” decade (and a few descriptions/words in it would probably be frowned upon if written today) and there are a couple of brilliantly ’90s moments – like a hilarious scene where some gnarly 1990s surfer dudes perform Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” but, for the most part, this novel is pretty much timeless. In addition to still being very gripping and atmospheric, a lot of the novel’s satire has also aged astonishingly well too.

For example, the novel’s satirical depiction of paranoid, ranting talk radio hosts could easily be a satire of the more unsavoury parts of the modern internet. Likewise, the novel’s hilarious satire of the trendy, hipsterish part of Quinsigamond wouldn’t seem too out of place in the 2010s. The novel’s satire of things like police violence, corruption etc.. are also still reasonably relevant in the present day too.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely loved it. It’s an intelligent, atmospheric, creative and complex novel that is as grippingly fast-paced as an action-thriller novel. But, as I mentioned earlier, this is one of those novels that has to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.

Review: “Word Made Flesh” By Jack O’Connell (Novel)

A couple of days before I wrote this review, I was waiting for some books to arrive and wondering what I was going to read next when I noticed my copy of Jack O’Connell’s 1998 novel “Word Made Flesh” propped up against a stack of DVDs near my computer.

It had been there for several years, perhaps even a decade. It had been a mere decorative item right up until that point. If I remember rightly, I found this book in a charity shop in Brighton sometime during the late 2000s/early 2010s. I bought it purely on the strength of the cool-looking cover art, the “18 certificate”-style logo on the cover (for my US readers, an “18 certificate” is the UK equivalent of a “hard R” or “NC-17” film rating) and the critic quote that likened it to “Blade Runner“. It seemed really cool.

Yet, it languished near my computer for years before I actually thought about, you know, reading it. So, yes, this review has been a long time coming.

So, let’s take a look at “Word Made Flesh”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2005 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “Word Made Flesh” that I read.

The story takes place in a New England city called Quinsigamond. It begins with a description of a man called Leo Tani being cruelly murdered by persons unknown. Then, we see an ex-police taxi driver called Gilrein being beaten up by two gangsters who are looking for something they believe that Gilrein owns. However, they are interrupted by one of Gilrein’s cop buddies called Oster, who scares them away.

Oster insists on driving Gilrein to a derelict printworks where the local police (who are more of a gang than a law enforcement agency) now reside. Gilrein hasn’t returned to this building since his wife, Ceil, was killed by a bomb blast there whilst investigating a case. Oster tries to convince Gilrein to re-join the police, but Gilrein refuses and they part on unfriendly terms.

Meanwhile, another taxi driver called Otto Langer talks to a mysterious passenger called the Inspector. He tells the Inspector of his younger days in a European city called Maisel. He talks about how he belonged to a Jewish sect called the Ezzenes, who were singled out for cruel, violent, genocidal persecution by the city’s authorities.

A while later, Gilrein is still puzzled by the threats against him from the gangsters and about Leo’s murder. So, he decides to investigate…

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that, although it isn’t for the faint-hearted, it is an astonishingly good novel 🙂 Imagine that Clive Barker, Neal Stephenson, William Burroughs and Raymond Chandler decided to sit down and write a novel together. If they did, the book they would produce would probably look a lot like “Word Made Flesh”.

In other words, this novel is a brilliantly unique combination of a disturbing horror novel, a detailed cyberpunk dystopia (without the computers), a work of surrealist beat literature and a complex noir detective story. And all of these different elements are blended together in a complex and seamless way that almost becomes it’s own new genre.

Still, when you start reading this book, it can be easy to mistake it for a horror novel. And a very potent one at that!

The story begins with a macabre flourish of extreme horror and chilling dystopian horror that will make even the most jaded of horror fiction and dystopian fiction readers wince and recoil with shocked and unsettled disgust. Yet, if you have both the stomach and the stoutness of mind for the first 40-50 pages, then the story begins to become more than just a shocking and deeply unsettling extreme horror story.

This story, like Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” is a complex story that will require your full attention. It isn’t easy reading in any sense of the word, but it is well worth putting in the effort. Not only is the writing in this novel filled with atmospheric descriptions, historical/cultural allusions, realistic dialogue, respect for the reader’s intelligence and lots of brilliantly quotable turns of phrase – but this novel also has a wonderfully intelligent level of thematic and narrative complexity too.

Basically, if you can understand the labyrinthine plot of a Raymond Chandler novel, then you’ll be in your element here. If not, you might get confused. And, yes, you need to pay attention when reading this novel.

For example, the solution to the murder mystery at the beginning of the novel is never explicitly spelled out, yet the reader is provided with enough clues to work out who probably did it (and why). Likewise, unless you pay careful attention to various pieces of backstory, then some of the later events of the story may not make sense. This is a story that respects the reader’s intelligence and demands that you think about it.

Thematically, this story is really interesting. One of the major themes, consistent with novels like “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson and some of William Burroughs’ novels is the idea of language and/or knowledge being a cross between a virus and a magical thing. In essence, “Word Made Flesh” is a story about stories (or a “metafiction” if you want to sound pretentious).

More particularly, it is a novel about the power of stories. This includes a woman whose entire life is shaped by seeing a film about a mysterious 19th century murder case, a man who repeats his life story to all those who will listen, a man who believes that he can hack people’s minds using language, a plague spread by a book, some fourth-wall breaking moments and a chilling tale about how an attempt to document an unspeakable atrocity (by turning it into a story) ends up inadvertently glorifying the perpetrator.

Another interesting theme in the novel is the theme of skin. This is probably more of a motif than a theme, but there’s a lot of skin-related imagery and events in this story. Although this is partially there to add an unsettling atmosphere to the story, it also possibly has some metaphorical significance too. This is because there’s one part of the story that talks about how people are separated by language, how everyone is alone because we only see others from the outside etc… So, presumably the emphasis on skin is related to this theme.

The novel also includes a lot of other themes (eg: religion, history, the nature of evil, mental health/PTSD, culture, authority etc..) too, but I should probably get on with the review.

The novel’s characters are extremely well-written and are a motley crew of washed-up, eccentric and/or morally ambiguous characters who are all unique individuals with realistic (if occasionally strange) motivations. They are all people who have been influenced or affected by their pasts in some way or another too.

This novel is also wonderfully atmospheric too. The story’s settings are left deliberately ambiguous, with the reader given enough information to picture individual locations – but with enough vagueness to make the larger “world” of the story seem like something unsettlingly strange and confusing. Along with the excellent writing (possibly influenced by writers like Neal Stephenson, Raymond Chandler and William Burroughs), this really helps to lend the novel a compelling atmosphere that will make you want to read more.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Whilst the story is a little bit slow-paced, the story’s atmosphere, intelligence and writing will ensure that it remains compelling nonetheless. Likewise, at 314 pages, this novel never really feels bloated. Seriously, most writers would be lucky to cram a story like this into 500 pages, let alone 314.

In terms of how this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged extremely well. Not only are the novel’s moments of horror still extremely effective, but the novel’s themes and complexities are pretty much timeless. A lot of what helps to preserve this novel is the ambiguity about when it is set (eg: the future? the 1990s? the 1950s? etc..) – this lends the story a slightly timeless quality which means that it still holds up really well to this day.

All in all, this is a unique, creative and intelligent novel that I’m really glad that I read 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t for everyone. But, if you’re open-minded, if you don’t mind intelligent storytelling, if you aren’t easily-shocked and if you want to read something that is like a mixture of Clive Barker, Neal Stephenson, William Burroughs and Raymond Chandler – then you will absolutely love this novel 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.